I strive to invest even the smallest of characters with a fascinating trait or two, and sometimes they blow up on me. It’s as if they’re handing me a business card and saying, “Cameo? I don’t think so!”
The ultimate example was Dr. Lisa Pisarro, who showed up in my sex novel Double Blind. My protagonist, Hopkins Grinder, got a nasty cut over his eye during an argument with his wife (at the time, she was chopping vegetables). Dr. Pisarro’s original role was simply to give him some stitches and broach the uncomfortable topic of whether Hopkins wanted to talk to the police.
The catch came in Hopkins’ description of Pisarro’s expressive features. It must be hard, he thinks, going around with your feelings right there on your face.
Hopkins and Dr. Lisa become friends, helping each other through his disintegrating marriage and her brother’s suicide, then inevitably fall in love (inevitably because of that first description).
In my just-finished road novel, Nature Boy, I had uninvited guests coming out of my ears. A lovely young Indian woman had an Irish accent that demanded explanation (Chitra McKenzie, raised in Dublin). Another woman gave my hero a kiss on the street outside a New York art opening and slipped an oyster shell into his pocket, inscribed with her name and number. She became Chelsea Kormit, a frozen-vegetable heiress who renovated old houses for a hobby.
Another young lady was meant mostly to look disappointed when my protagonist revealed his date was dancing half-naked above them in a go-go cage. But something about her was so endearing that I equipped her with the most Jewish name I could come up with – Rachel Grossman – and watched as she became the tragic heart of my novel.
What do I mean to tell you with all these examples? That novels are like life. You may think you’re in control, but you’re not, and the uninvited guests who come to your party often turn out to be the most entertaining.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels and a competitions judge for Writer’s Digest. See his author page at Amazon.com. Photo by MJV.